Backyard Adventures

As a kid, my summers included family camping trips, excursions to the amusement park, and Fourth of July fireworks. But those were the landmark events that punctuated the extended freedom of June, July, and August. On a day-to-day basis, my activities centered on the fun we created ourselves. And the location for those activities tended to be the small patch of sun, shade, and lawn in our suburban backyard.

These toy cars have the same wear patterns that I remember from my sandbox vehicles. Tootsietoy cars, about 1970. Gift of the Berndt Family, from the collection of Strong National Museum of Play. When I was a toddler, my dad built a sandbox in one corner of the backyard. The sandbox became the source of hours of imaginative play—mounding, grading, building, and digging. Did I use shovels and pails? I think so, but the toys I remember best from my sandbox were cast metal toy cars. Today, the few remaining Tootsietoy vehicles in my possession bear testimony to the trials they endured in those sandbox summer days. The cars look like they’ve been sandblasted (I suppose that’s basically what happened), with remnants of their once-shiny paint remaining only in the crevices and grooves of their designs.

I never had a cool Roy Rogers tent like this one, but the picnic table made a good substitute structure for all sorts of imaginative play. Photograph, 1958. Gift of Jay Mechling, from the collection of Strong National Museum of Play.Once I’d outgrown the sandbox, our wooden picnic table became the focus for creative backyard play. Depending on how we configured the table and its benches, we had a fort, a houseboat, a log cabin, or even the Batcave where my friends and I could spin extended stories that filled the humid summer afternoons.

Later, when I was too big for pretend play, my sister and I adapted the game of badminton to our backyard and the flimsy badminton set that we got with Top Value trading stamps from the Kroger supermarket. The badminton net was too much trouble to put up for a quick game, so we used the clothesline as a substitute net. And since our racquet skills were limited at best, we abandoned the regulation badminton rules. Instead, our objective was to collaborate on hitting the birdie back and forth as many times as possible, Product illustration from the Buckingham-Crown Sports Co. catalog,  1973. From the Stephen and Diane Olin Toy Catalog Collection at Strong  National Museum of Play. counting out loud as we went. Unpredictable breezes, intruding tree branches, and the neighbor’s barking Chihuahuas all acted as hazards and distractions. It was the rare volley that made it over the count of ten before we bungled the birdie. It was a moment of joint triumph when we reached a monumental figure like fifty.

A scrap wood sandbox filled with sand from the builder’s supply company or a clothesline combined with parts of a badminton set—they hardly seem like inspiring raw materials, but they made for great summer play back then and happy memories today.